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NHL

The Wild Are Lucky, But That Might Be All

Hats on the ice in Minnesota
David Berding/Getty Images

The Minnesota Wild experienced a rare subpar performance from their goaltending on Monday night, but lucky for them, the guy in the mask on the other side of the ice was even more snakebitten. In a 7-4 win at home over the Detroit Red Wings, they survived early embarrassment—two goals allowed in the first four minutes—to wreck Alex Nedeljkovic for five straight, plus an empty netter, and one more on the goalie in the final 15 seconds just to rub it in.

The hero of the night was their 2019 first-round pick Matt Boldy, who in just his 13th career game earned his first career hat trick (plus an assist), highlighted by a dizzying faux-spin move he put on for the first. Kirill Kaprizov, too, made himself known with his fourth and fifth goals over his past five games, including a stunning wrist shot that he teleported into the net to break a 2-2 tie in the second. This pair alone—the young star and the younger potential star—was too much for Detroit to handle.

The Wild have, in fact, been too much for most teams to handle this year, particularly when their opponents have run into them during one of their handful of discrete hot streaks. They’re on one of those right now, and it’s the longest yet. With Monday’s win in the books, the Wild have won eight of their last nine and 11 of their last 13 dating back to Jan. 6. And those points shore up an already-strong position as the second-best team in the West, with their record of 30-11-3 besting everyone there but the Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche.

This was a franchise that looked to be in disarray in the offseason, as they shed the cornerstones of their identity, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and initially struggled to re-sign the restricted free agent Kaprizov following a thrilling rookie year. But the playful, Ovechkin-loving Russian with the nifty moves eventually returned to cement himself as a franchise player, with 22 goals and 35 assists through his first 43 games. And despite looming eight-figure dead cap numbers thanks to the lengthy Parise/Suter contracts, the Wild have managed to support him with both fresh faces like Boldy and rejuvenated veterans. The 34-year-old Mats Zuccarello has 46 points playing on the opposite wing from Kaprizov. Ryan Hartman, a 27-year-old center who’s been passed across four franchises, has already tied his 2016–17 career high with 19 goals. And Alex Goligoski, the 36-year-old defenseman signed off the Coyotes, has proven one of the strongest value buys during a crazy summer at his position.

“It’s scary the depth that I think that we have,” fifth-year winger Jordan Greenway said after Monday’s win. “We can rely on everyone for different things, whether it’s getting on the scoresheet or locking down another line, whatever the case is. We can rely on pretty much everyone, so that’s definitely a good feeling, and it’s gonna be good for us going down the stretch, for sure.”

I bet I know what you’re thinking right now. God, Lauren, whyyyy are you trying to make me care about the Minnesota Wild? And that’s fair! The Wild have earned their rep over the last decade as the playoff team you’re allowed to totally ignore. They’ve made the postseason in all but one year since 2013, but they’ve advanced from the first round just twice, in ’14 and ’15, and in the second round have won just two games, total, going all the way back to 2003. They are the NHL’s quintessential underachievers, putting up consistently acceptable regular season results before ending their years in the most unmemorable of ways.

If you were looking to write them off again, you’d do so primarily based on their league-leading PDO. Apologies if you know this already, but PDO adds together a team’s save percentage and its shooting percentage to, essentially, measure the quality of their own goaltending and the quality of the goaltending they face in order to try and quantify luck. League average is always 100, because one team gives what another team takes, and at this moment the Wild are sitting at 101.9, which is about where they were last year, at 102.

This is the simplest possible red flag. Thanks to another solid season from Cam Talbot in net, and a breakout year from the 25-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen as his backup, the Wild are seventh in the league at stopping shots—which is great, because they’re ninth-worst at allowing them, which is not a recipe for sustained success. And on offense, led by Marcus Foligno and his absurd 17 goals on 58 shots, the Wild are tied at the top with 11.6 percent of their shots crossing the line. That’s how they’re third in the league in goals per game despite being 12th in attempts. They’re not creating a ton of chances, but they happen to be catching a lot of netminders on bad days.

So here are some of the negative things you could say about the Wild. They don’t have the underlying stuff to produce the necessary volume of chances against strong goaltending. Their middling defense won’t protect their own goalies enough against more skilled offensive onslaughts. And, more worryingly in the long-term, the continuing construction of this roster is unequivocally fucked by the $12-to-$14 million that the Wild will be charged in each of the next three seasons for players not even on the team.

This is the part of the blog where I’m supposed to tell you to, like, screw the numbers and enjoy the ride. You’re allowed to do that! But you also really don’t have to. The Wild are indeed a tough team to get behind, and even if you try to ignore their consistently disappointing past, any real, convincing proof of their abilities is still pretty tough to find.

But I can try, so as not to make this blog a total downer. Minnesota does at least have some of the ingredients needed for a playoff series win. They have reliable goaltending, a decent amount of postseason experience, and a charismatic young scorer who lights up the ice. And it was in 2021 that they gave their stiffest fight in quite a while, pushing Vegas all the way to seven games on the back of multiple Talbot shutouts. The playoffs are already a bit of a crapshoot, and there’s no reason a hot goalie and good luck can’t last for a couple of months.

But, sorry. This is the Minnesota Wild. The burden is not on me to try and figure out if the Wild are good this time. It’s on them, starting in May, to prove that it’s for real.